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SDI 2.0? Donald Trump Wants A ‘Star Wars’ Missile Shield Like Reagan

Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic Missile Sample Image VIA DARPA.

SDI or Star Wars Comeback Thanks to Trump? During his rambling campaign announcement on Tuesday, former President Trump took time to plug his plans for future missile defense:

“As events overseas have show to protect from the unthinkable threat of nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles, the United States must also build a state-of-the-art next-generation missile defense shield, we need it. The power of these missiles and the power of a word I refuse to say, “nuclear.” We have to have it. We need a defense shield. And we have to do it. And we actually have the technology and we are going to build it, just as I rebuilt our military, I will get this done.”

Does all this indicate that missile defense will become a Trump signature issue in anticipation of the 2024 race?

Star Wars Missile Defense: History and Ongoing Legacy

Trump’s plan sounds like the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars.”

“Star Wars,” or the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), was the term used by the Reagan administration to describe a new, advanced form of strategic missile defense that would sharply reduce the threat that intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and some submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) could pose to the United States.

The most fantastic aspect of SDI would have been a series of satellites that could monitor and destroy Soviet missiles either in the boost phase or as they traveled through space toward their targets (thus the moniker Star Wars).

SDI was hardly the first US effort at ballistic missile defense, as research on various interception methods had begun as early as the 1950s. Still, it did capture public attention in ways that previous proposals had not.

Star Wars never panned out in the timeframe projected by the Reagan administration. However, it did generate some combination of worthwhile investment in technologies and wasteful government spending, depending on which watchdog organization you ask.

The commitment of the US government to missile defense has waxed and waned depending on the Presidential administration, but the US institutional commitment to missile defense has never been stronger.

ABM technology has moved ahead dramatically over the past four decades, although generally not in the direction that SDI had predicted. The means of destroying ballistic missiles are now decidedly earthbound, even if they include satellites and spectacular lasers as part of the package.

The Political Impact

It is not an exaggeration to say that SDI, and strategic anti-ballistic technology more generally, is the most disruptive military technology that has never been deployed at scale.

There seems to be concrete evidence that the Soviets saw SDI as a real threat to their nuclear deterrent and that this impacted their negotiating strategy during the late rounds of arms control meetings in the 1980s.

It’s also not unreasonable to argue that the US decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty, as much or more than NATO expansion, opened an unbridgeable canyon between Moscow and Washington in the 2000s. It is also possible that US missile defense aspirations are at the core of China’s decision to expand its strategic nuclear arsenal.

Domestically, while Democratic administrations have typically pursued missile defense with somewhat less enthusiasm than their Republican counterparts, no Democratic President has spoken out against the continuation of the program. The Democratic response to Republican political pressure on missile defense has typically been to defang that pressure by following a “yes, but more slowly” policy towards technology development and systems deployment.

Trump and Biden

Former President Trump says many things, and it’s never clear how sincere he is about his claims and promises or even whether he understands what he’s saying.

During his first term, Trump called for a return to a form of SDI that would have involved space-based weapons, but the Pentagon did not act aggressively on that particular element of the plan. Trump also presided over creating the United States Space Force (USSF), which shares responsibility for some of the components of existing missile defense systems.

US Navy Missiles

070426-N-0000X-001.PACIFIC OCEAN (April 26, 2007) – A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the Aegis-class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test. Approximately three minutes later, the SM-3 intercepted a unitary (non-separating) ballistic missile threat target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Within moments of this launch, the USS Lake Erie also launched a Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) against a hostile air target in order to defend herself. The test was the eighth intercept, in 10 program flight tests. The test was designed to show the capability of the ship and its crew to conduct ballistic missile defense and at the same time defend herself. This test also marks the 27th successful hit-to-kill intercept in tests since 2001. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED)

The evolution of the institutional landscape has not stopped under President Biden. The USSF now represents a presence within the Department of Defense to advocate for all things space. And to be clear, a huge component of the already existing network of missile defenses involves satellites that can identify launches and track missiles in flight.

Indeed, in September, Space Systems Command announced plans to develop an integrated program office that would involve Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency, and the Missile Defense Agency, reducing redundancy and ensuring that the one hand knows what the other hand is doing.

Star Wars Makes a Comeback in 2024? 

Trump using a second term to make an aggressive push on missile defense would not be surprising, given both his interest in spectacle and the consistent preferences of Republican Presidents over the past forty years.

Rhetorically, the idea of an impenetrable missile shield appeals to the same set that made building the border wall a core foreign policy argument. Any effort will build, however, upon forty years of halting progress on the problem of missile defense.

Perhaps more importantly, steps to revolutionize US missile defense programs will undoubtedly have an impact abroad, particularly on how Russia and China think about the needs of their own nuclear arsenals.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. ATM

    November 19, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    Any country can end a star wars by launching buckets of sand into near orbit. Given the militarization of space any nation has a perfect right to do it.

  2. Andrew M Winter

    November 19, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    SSSSHHHHHHHH!!!!

    Don’t tell anyone, but Ronald Reagan’s SDI is already deployed. In enough numbers to get the job done, I don’t think so. But Two thirds of it has been deployed for years now.

    You are too young to remember the derision heaped on Pres Reagan for even suggesting the idea. The comments always, and really stupidly still do, ring the silly refrain, “You can’t hit a bullet with a bullet”.

    You are too young to remember The Gulf War where Patriot Missiles Systems did exactly that with 95% accuracy. What was also shown was that the warheads of Patriot need what turned out to be a minor re-engineering to make sure that the “bullet” they hit was actually destroyed.

    And THAT was supposed to be the “impossible” part. Hitting a re-entering ballistic missile on Terminal Phase, of its trajectory. We have been doing that since before you graduated with your PHd in 2004.

    Terminal Phase
    Mid Course Phase
    Boost Phase

    SDI was envisioned in those three envelopes of a ballistic missile’s flight.

    Terminal Phase intercept is covered by THADD, Patriot, Aegis Missile systems flying SM-2, SM-3 and SM-6 Missiles. Exoatmospheric Terminal Phase is handled by all five as well.

    But SM-3 handles the Mid Course. It’s range/radius covers the approaches to a continent in circles 1100 miles in diameter. Two in Europe, the one being completed now in Poland the one in Romania cover everything from Southern Scandinavia to the seas between the Greek and Crete.

    Every US ship that carries the Mk-41 VLS system comes with a compliment of SM-3, SM-2 and SM-6 missiles.

    That covers Terminal and Mid Course. What about Boost Phase. I believe we are a LOT closer to that than any one is printing. Here are the knowns,
    YAL-1, Boeings flying Laser could and did take down two ballistic missiles in 9 seconds each target at 250 miles through atmosphere. Range is not associated with POWER in a Laser. Atmospheric diffusion is the problem. YAL-1 PROVED that this diffusion could be defeated with adaptive and active optics technology from the 1990s. That’s a KNOWN

    The 250 mile range limit of YAL-1 was simply that in was a direct line of sight attack, and 250 miles is about where the Earth’s Horizon is from the altitude that YAL-1 was designed to operate. That is a KNOWN

    LASER power is sufficient to destroy an artillery round in flight. Systems are being deployed NOW that can and have done so. That is a KNOWN.

    The fuselage of a boosting ballistic missile is a LOT more fragile than the hardened skin of an artillery round. That is a KNOWN.

    This is a postulation:
    https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1018554.pdf. Published about the same time YAL-1 made its successful tests. It postulates reflecting a weapon level LASER beam upwards to an exo-atmospheric satellite constellation and bringing that beam back down anywhere on Earth.

    This is a KNOWN.

    Firing a LASER upward to a satellite constellation only requires penetrating 60 miles of atmosphere. That same beam then only has to pass through a second 60 miles to come back down to it’s target, IF that target is as far away from the upper atmosphere as say,… ground level. KNOWN or at least KNOWABLE.

    UNKNOWN.
    What has the Air Force been doing with its X-37 OTV on those years long orbital missions that NO ONE knows anything about beside some PR releases that don’t really say anything.

    The real rabbit hole:
    Google Earth Satellite imagery is good enough to resolve the 8×11 inch piece of paper on the dashboard of the minivan I owned ten years ago. While it can’t resolve it, I can see the anomaly on that piece of paper caused by the one corner folded half way down. That’s a small as a human skull.

    A human skull is also a LOT more fragile than the hardened skin of an artillery round.

    So,
    Terminal
    Mid Course
    of SDI is already deployed and NO ONE is connecting those dots.
    Boost Phase? It may be there already, and I can’t think of a better sniper rifle.

    Your entire article may well be past tense already. Maybe, 2/3rds of it is anyway.

  3. 403Forbidden

    November 19, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Horse has bolted the barn, despite all or whatever devious ideas & plans US has in store for grabbing control of thde globe.

    Countries are now developing tsunami-capable underwater torpedo drones, spaceplanes, FOBS gliders and peresvet lasers for potential use against our modern genghis.

    The days of aglobal hegemon operating from its hq in washington are over.

  4. Steven

    November 19, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    Andrew Winter you are brilliant!

  5. Brent

    November 19, 2022 at 7:56 pm

    trump’s an idiot and anyone that listens to him is one as well. He has no military experience other than how to avoid serving; he’s a chancre on the body of America.

  6. MaxMaxExtreme

    November 20, 2022 at 2:12 am

    Putin: We have super hypersonic nuclear capability now.
    USA: That’s nice, we’re building lasers in space.
    Putin: You can’t do that!

  7. Neil Ross

    November 20, 2022 at 10:02 am

    Besides the technical limits of the weaponry, what the U.S. has lacked was the appropriate ultra heavy lift launch system. Saturn was cancelled and the Shuttle was showing its limitations. Alas, now they have two ultra heavy launch systems in development, one just recently proven successful, all under the guise of lunar and Martian exploration. It’s horrible to think that this weaponry may one day see the light of day. Are there any experts reading that can comment whether the Artemis Accords will prevent this from becoming a reality?

  8. TheDon

    November 20, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    Trump is an idiot and like Putin, so smart and generals are losers.
    He would do it like Putin, his way.
    Its working great for Russia.

  9. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    November 21, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you, Andrew Winter, for being a voice of intelligence in a sea of feckless, TDS-addled leftists and Russian/Iranian/Chi-com trolls.

  10. Roger Bacon

    November 21, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    The only two things that make a weapon obsolete are a better weapon or a better shield. I really don’t want to see a weapon that makes nukes obsolete so the only hope is a shield that renders them obsolete.

    I hope president Trump can build such a defensive shield before his term expires in 2028. If he can do that then he really should be on Mt. Rushmore.

    “… because isn’t it better to defend our children than avenge them?” — Quote from Reagan when referring to SDI.

  11. Ben Neviss

    November 21, 2022 at 3:42 pm

    So the only real points of this poorly written article are that Trump wants to push a new SDI, and some of the technology is already in place. How many paragraphs should that take?

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